By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
Most likely some Libyan factions will sign a peace deal today, Wednesday, in Morocco. Representatives from the General National Congress in Tripoli and the Council of Deputies in Tubruk — the latter enjoys international recognition — have declared that they will sign the deal even though there are still dissenting voices on both sides.
On Sunday, representatives of 18 countries and agencies, including the EU, the United States, Russia and the UN, met in Rome to convince the two sides to embrace the agreement, which was brokered by the UN after months of grueling negotiations.
The immediate goal of the agreement is to form a national unity government, which will take it upon itself to bring Libyans together and end years of divisions and chaos that have made Libya a failed state. But what is important for the West is that this government will legitimize international intervention to fight and defeat Daesh, which has made spectacular territorial gains recently in Libya recently. The French now believe Daesh is moving to control oil fields in Libya’s heartland.
Neither the Islamist-led General National Congress nor the Council of Deputies — the latter was elected last year — has been able to deal with the fast expansion of Daesh. The militant group has been solidifying its presence since it first appeared in Derna last year and later took over Sirte this year. Last week, it was reported that Daesh had taken control of the ancient Roman city of Sabratha, which is wedged between Tripoli and Libya’s borders with Tunisia, putting the militant group less than 50 km from the capital, Tripoli.
Adding to the growing threat of Daesh in Libya, which seems to have been underestimated by Europe and the US, is the fact that the militant group has been attracting foreign fighters as well as local ones. Reports put the number of Daesh fighters in Libya at 3,000 to 5,000 with more joining from Ansar Al- Sharia, a Salafist movement, in Benghazi. The rest of the Libya is controlled by local militias, most following an Islamist agenda.
Libya descended into chaos following the murder of strongman Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. It was abandoned by the Europeans and the US, especially after the killing of the US ambassador in Benghazi in 2012. Since then little attention was given to that country as it slowly fell apart and is now claimed by two rival governments. The UN mediation was viewed with suspicion by both sides, and when a final agreement was reached in October neither side was ready to sign it.
But now the threat of Daesh in Libya has pushed Europe and the US to intervene. Following the Paris terror attacks in November, the French became concerned of the danger that Daesh represents in North Africa. Italy has been on the receiving end of thousands of illegal migrants who crossed the sea from Libyan shores, only few hundred miles away. The air campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq has reportedly pushed key leaders to flee to Libya. Unconfirmed reports say that Abu Baker Al-Baghdadi has taken refuge in Sirte recently. UN experts believe that of all other affiliates the Libyan branch of Daesh is the only one that is linked directly and organizationally to the main group in Iraq and Syria.
The possibility of Daesh linking up with affiliates in Tunisia, Egypt, Morocco and Somalia is raising the alarm in these countries and beyond. Certainly Egypt cannot afford to fight the extremists on two fronts — Sinai in the east and along its borders with Libya in the west. Once the new Libyan government is formed the international community will lift its arms embargo, as well as free over $150 billion in foreign banks, enabling the Libyan national army to receive much-needed weapons and ammunitions.
France has said that it will not hesitate to wage war against militants in Libya. The US, which is reviewing its strategy against Daesh, is likely to join an extensive air campaign in Libya. But without a united government that is able to function and carry out its program destroying Daesh will not be easy. The failure of the political process is a likely possibility. The Tripoli body is recognized by Qatar and Turkey while the Tubruk government is backed by the UAE and Egypt, among others. These countries will have to back down and allow the Libyan factions to work together to achieve reconciliation.
For years the various Libyan factions and militias have proved that they are their own worst enemy. The country is almost bankrupt and many territories are under the control of local militias with tribal affiliations. Uniting the Libyan people through a workable political process that will lead to the dismantling of the militias and the strengthening of the national army remains an almost impossible task. But failing to do this will give Daesh the opportunity to expand and build a base that will be larger than the territory it now controls in Syria and Iraq. Even more dangerous this oil-rich state will be only few hundred miles from European shores.